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Redwork Embroidery Is Red... Unless It'’s Blue

There are redwork embroidery designs, as well as blackwork, whitework, and bluework. Can't we just say rainbowork? We can use the whole rainbow today, but there's a reason those particular dye colors were used in different timeperiods.

The red version of blackwork started when producers in Turkey developed a colorfast red cotton dye. Silk was the only colorfast option for colors before, and the traditional material for blackwork.

But cotton was cheaper, so cotton redwork designs became popular in the 19th century, the middle Victorian age, among the low and middle class, especially after the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, PA.

I found a reference to it in Peterson's Magazine November 1861, but it was at the height of popularity from 1876-1925.

The Centennial Exposition was a world's fair with over 9 million visitors. The Japanese exhibit had a tremendous influence on American designs. Also, ladies were inspired to start their own societies based on the exhibit of the Royal School of Ornamental Needlework from England.

It was the birth of the aesthetic movement with "Art for art's sake" and the beginning of the Arts and Crafts Movement focusing on design and craftsmanship.

In the early 20th century, pre-stitched penny squares were available at general stores. These were incorporated into some old quilts, so quilters have revived this art form in modern recreations.

Crazy quilting shares similar origins with this stitching style and also became popular after the art needlework display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

redwork quilt

The Michigan State University Museum held a special exhibit on Redwork: A Textile Tradition in America that featured pieces from the Deborah Harding Redwork Collection, such as the above quilt. You can take an audio tour online.

A Dyer Warning

Be careful about red dyes nowadays! I've heard of modern dyes bleeding, especially reds.

If in doubt, soak the skein of thread in plain water overnight or water with a little vinegar added for a 1/2 hour first and let the thread dry thoroughly before using it to stitch.


Sometimes this embroidery was done in indigo cotton. Indigo was another stable dye, although not as widely available. This stitching was called bluework embroidery. It became more common after 1910 when synthetic dyes became more colorfast and stable.


What about whitework? It was the natural undyed thread color and therefore quite cheap and popular among peasants. For information on whitework, please see Hardanger embroidery.


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